Skip to content

Color Temperature | Recede vs. Pop Out

Share This:

Are you still using black in your paintings to create shadows? Here’s a better color choice that will make your painting look more realistic.

I’ll just give you the answer straight up if that’s all you want to know: you’ll wanna use a cool color, like blue.

If you want to know a little more why blue works better than black read on. It all has to do with color temperature.

All colors have a wavelength on the visual spectrum. Cool colors have slower wavelengths than warm colors. Objects that are red is a visual cue that it might be hot to the touch. Objects that are blue is a visual cue that it might be cool to the touch. While looking at a painting warm colors reach our eyes faster than cool colors.

It all has to do with the speed of the wavelength.

For example, take this still life by Paul Cezanne. I visited The Getty Art Museum in 2015 and saw this painting in person. I took a guided tour that was very interesting. In fact, the whole museum is awesome and if you find yourself in L.A. sometime I highly recommend it.

The last 30 years of his life Cezanne painted nothing but still life after still life using the same objects. One reason was for color study purposes. He was very meticulous with his use of color.

In Still Life with Apples (1893-1894) you’ll see the whole composition is painted with desaturated blues and greens with just a little red and yellow for the apples. Even though he used just a little amount of warm colors this directs your eye very clearly to the apples. Cezanne understood warm colors will reach the eye sooner than cool colors. The rest of the composition seems to recede behind the apples because of this.

A better color to use when you’re wanting to make objects recede or not be as noticeable to the viewer use blue. I say blue in general and not just any cool color because green I view as more of a neutral and purple contains red which makes it on the warm side. Of course, this depends on if you are wanting a warm shadow or cool shadow, but that’s a discussion for a different day.

What’s your favorite color to paint shadows with? Let me know in the comments.



Paul Cézanne (French, 1839 – 1906)

Still Life with Apples, 1893 – 1894, Oil on canvas

65.4 × 81.6 cm (25 3/4 × 32 1/8 in.)

The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Visual spectrum wavelength image:

Share This: